Saturday, January 19, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with RM Vaughan

RM Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist originally from New Brunswick. He is the author of seven books and a contributor to many anthologies. His short videos play in festivals and galleries across Canada and around the world.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I think I'm supposed to be very cool and detached about having my first book published, way back in the early 90s, supposed to say something about how getting published is not a validation but that the validation must come from within ... but the truth is, it was fucking great and I loved it and I immediately knew I wanted more. I was not happy with a career limited to chapbooks and poems published in obscure lit mags (not that getting a poetry book out made me any less obscure, but, you know, baby steps, baby steps). Why write if you don't want to be published? I've never understood that attitude. And I kinda don't believe people when they adopt it.

2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've been here for about 15 years, maybe more. I didn't land here and stay, I kept going back and forth between here and NB. I'm fairly certain that had I continued to live in NB, my interests would be different. I am most comfortable in congested urban spaces, because I need the distractions, and I think all that noise has, conversely, made my writing a bit quieter, less showy.

The gender (by which I assume you also to some extent mean sexuality?) issue is so big, I don't know where to begin. Some days I feel like a "gay writer", some days I feel like a "writer who is gay", some days both. It's all context. I do know that being queer and growing up in a remote, non-urban place definitely gives me an outsider perspective, which is good and bad. I never, never feel like I belong anywhere, even when an event or space is constructed around me. I wonder if that feeling will ever go away? Part of that also comes from being an adopted child, but that's a whole other deal. But, back to the gay/gender question: in practical terms, I can say without a doubt that there is a "lavender ceiling" for writers in Canada, and being an out queer writer myself, I've had my nose pressed against it more than once. Gays in Canada are not supposed to be serious writers, unless we stay closeted or semi-closeted, we're supposed to host decorating shows.

3 - Where does a poem, play or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Both. Things start usually when a series of connections presents itself to me, or, more likely, when I finally wake the fuck up and notice the connections, and then off I go. But there is no system with me, no pattern. Projects arrive and leave randomly, and I pursue them, or don't, for a variety of reasons. I'm not very good at being strategic.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I used to tell myself that I would not publish a poem until I had read it publicly once, but that's a hard rule to keep. I have gone back and changed poems and fiction after hearing myself read it, or actually changed it onstage, in the moment, because it suddenly strikes me how to word it.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Theoretical? Well, I studied all that stuff when I was an MA student, butI'm sure that all that I learned is now out of fashion - nevertheless, core questions about the trustworthyness of language are always in the back of my head, plus I'm a chronic second guesser.

I'm not trying to answer questions so much as convince myself to stop asking them.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Aren't all editors outsiders? Essential, of course - because I don't always know what's best, nor would I want to. And because I write newspaper articles for money, I have learned how to accept editorial imput and not think every comma change is the end of the world.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

It's about the same. And every new book needs a new making/selling/promoting scheme.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

About a week ago. A "Chinese white pear", according to the label. It was very bitter, for a pear, and the skin was oddly sharp. I think it was calleda Ya pear.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Sky Gilbert, on why nobody was coming to one of my plays: "Honey, if you're going to write a poetic, non-linear play about a 19th century novelist nobody reads anymore, don't expect the tour bus to show up."

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to plays to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

It's not easy at all, but it's the only way I'm happy. Some subjects are better as plays, some as poems, etc - or at least I think so. I've probably been wrong every time about this. For instance, my next book, Troubled, is a memoir written in poems. If I had any smarts I would have written it as non-fiction and gotten some real money (see comment about absence of strategic thought above).

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I have no routine at all. A typical day begins with letting the damned, beloved cat out, sipping coffee, considering and rejecting the healthy breakfast idea, and reading newspapers on line. It takes me forever to get started. And, I can't work at night. Just can't. So, when the days are short, not much gets done.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Anonymous sex. Works every time.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It feels more blunt, less evasive and "clever" than my previous books. This likely means it is a career-ender.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Visual art, constantly. Movies, bad art, newspaper articles, porn, friends.. but nature, almost never. I grew up about 100 yards from the Bay of Fundy, where, at least when I was a kid, every 3 months somebody drowned, usually a fisherman (and they were all men back then). Nature was dangerous, cold, wet and unfriendly, not inspiring. And the rotting fish smell coming off that bay at times would stop a clock. Nature is cute, at best, but overrated as an inspiration.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Anything by Henry James, because it's such a chore to read, and I like that. I read a lot of so-called "trash" too. Anything with vampires works. I also read as much as I can about ancient cultures, because I find it comforting to know that people have always been stupid and easily distracted.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Lose weight. But that would involve getting away from this desk. It's a conundrum.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I'd love to get in on the Cash-For-Life program at the CBC, where you just pick your feet all day and once a week file a story about whatever is going on in New York. Had I not been a writer, I would have been a painter, at which I sucked.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Failing to be good at painting.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book - Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (skip the film, it sucks). Film - Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, purely by accident (somebody suggested it) - full of operatic fury and really cute guys with full beards.

20 - What are you currently working on?

An article for The Walrus, an article for Canadian Art, last wrap-up stuff on Troubled, a new video about my obsession with Sterling Hayden.

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